Free Speech (Or Lack Thereof) in Britain

Madison Iszler

Spiked, a libertarian magazine focusing on politics, culture, and society, has created a ranking system for universities based on the state of free speech on campuses in the United Kingdom. The Free Speech University Rankings (FSUR) is the UK’s first university ranking system based on free speech. Spiked, Britain’s first internet-based current-affairs magazine, surveyed every university in Britain, investigating the policies and actions of colleges and students’ unions, and ranked each one using a traffic-light system akin to the system the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) created.

If a university earns a red traffic light, it means that the university has “banned and actively censored ideas on campus.” An amber light rating means that a university “has chilled free speech through intervention” and a green light means that a university “has a hands-off approach to free speech,” according to the spiked website. Based on this system and their analysis of Britain’s universities, spiked found that 80% of universities censor speech, with nearly half earning a red light rating.

Additionally, when ranked separately, spiked found that students’ unions were much more constraining than universities, with 51% of students’ unions earning a red light rating as opposed to 9.5% of universities. A survey of the most restrictive policies revealed that 48% of universities have censorious Bullying and Harassment policies and 37% of students’ unions have a “No Platform” policy. The most pro-free speech universities include Trinity St. David, Winchester, and Buckingham, while the most censorious universities include Essex, Bath Spa, and Northampton.

In 2014 spiked launched its “Down With Campus Censorship!” campaign aimed at combating all forms of campus censorship, but primarily focusing on a National Union of Students (NUS) policy preventing any organizations or groups that hold “racist or fascist views” from speaking at union events or sharing a platform with union representatives. In response, spiked created the “Just Say No to No Platform” campaign, calling the impetus driving No Platform policies “an insult to students’ intelligence.” FIRE expressed well wishes to those leading the campaign, saying that they “hope the spiked campaign will be a great success” and “are happy to see a group so eloquently take up the defense of free speech across the pond.”

FIRE developed a database of college speech policies, called the Spotlight Database, for the United States. This database is the only one of its kind in the United States and includes “over 400 of the nation's top colleges and universities.” Every college or university in the database earns a colored traffic light – red, yellow, green, or gray – based on FIRE’s analysis of the permissibility of free speech at each university. If a college earns a red light rating, it “has at least one policy that both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech,” meaning that “the threat to free speech at a red light institution is obvious on the face of the policy and does not depend on how the policy is applied.” If a college earns a yellow light rating, it “is one whose policies restrict a more limited amount of protected expression or, by virtue of their vague wording, could too easily be used to restrict protected expression.” If a college earns a green light rating, its policies “do not seriously imperil speech,” but such a rating “does not indicate that a school actively supports free expression.” Such a rating simply means that FIRE “is not currently aware of any serious threats to students’ free speech rights in the policies on that campus.” Lastly, when a private institution “expresses its own values by stating both clearly and consistently that it holds a certain set of values above a commitment to freedom of speech,” FIRE does not rate that institution.

As an organization that seeks to combat the censorship of ideas and suppression of debate, the exclusion of certain viewpoints, and an anti-freedom attitude on college and university campuses, the National Association of Scholars supports the spiked rating system. This is a worthy effort to draw attention to the need for freedom of speech on campus, and we are pleased to see a system similar to FIRE’s that is being developed in Britain.  

Image: spiked

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